Animal Studies Bibliography
Helmer, James. 1991. The horse in backstretch culture. Qualitative Sociology 14(2): 175-195.
[Background info. is provided about horseracing terms and the organization of the racing stable, a small corporation.] The backstretch, the backstage of the racetrack, has the characteristics of a total institution because the people who work there spend almost all of their time there, often living there in dorms or mobile homes. Grooms and trainers, the workers of the backstretch, are made socially invisible' by the fact that their long hours and the presence of all basic services within the backstretch make it unnecessary for them to leave. Residents keep few possessions, are separated from mainstream culture and uninterested in politics, and often find a close-knit community in the backstretch that they didn't have elsewhere while still being able to live a life full of travel. The backstretch evidences small-town life, with public areas serving as social centers. The division of labor between groom and trainer is flexible at the smaller tracks, often varying by convenience or by workers' individual preferences. Workers still identify as one or the other, however, and assume the proper place in the hierarchy. The ability to work up from groom to trainer is emphasized (mostly for men), and people who try to join horseracing without such a history (and the training and experience involved) are scorned. People who drug their horses to win (chemists) and gyps (people who care for their horses sloppily) are also scorned. The horse itself is central to the culture of the backstretch, which is not just a job but the whole life of the people involved. The horse helps create this strong attachment and creates meaning in the culture in 5 ways. First, the horse is central to the economic system, as the main commodity for exchange as well as the source of all the workers' livelihood. This livelihood is often uncertain, as grooms and trainers may be in and out of work as horses go in and out of training or change stables. Second, the technology of the backstretch (the skills particular to horseracing) are centered on the horse and its care. Despite medical advances and the now constant presence of veterinarians at the track, the best techniques are far from certain, and caring for a horse involves a lot of guesswork, particularly because each horse responds differently to any given treatment. Grooms and trainers often have particular treatments they prefer, may have learned different treatments based on where they started in the business, or may rely on luck, hope, witchcraft, or superstition to bring their horse through. Third, the horse influences the chronemic system, shaping the sense of time in the backstretch. Daily routines are shaped by horses' needs. The repetitiveness of the tasks and the fact that people from adolescence to old age do the same work makes the backstretch have a sense of timelessness. The year is also a cycle shaped by the horse, with a three-season breakdown created by the training and racing cycles. The racing season also has three parts, called anticipation, reality, and desperation, revealing the risky nature of racing life. Fourth, the horse is central to the interpersonal system of the backstretch. People are accorded status based on the kind of horse they work with (its skills, its racing style) and how well they care for their horses (in other words, that they are not gyps). Fifth, the horse is central to workers' individual psychology. Most workers came to and stay with racing because they love horses, despite the economic hardship and risks involved. People feel great pride in a horse's good performance, base their identities on the status the community affords their horses, and have close, emotional relationships with their horses. The horse also serves as a source of inspiration and a heroic figure. The backstretch can thus be described as a social situation constituted through an equine vocabulary of motives, (194) in which people live and act according to the reward system of the backstretch culture rather than that of the larger culture (influence, family, money, etc.). The horse is the epitomizing or central symbol around which backstretch culture is organized and meaning is created.